updated 7/25/2007 9:43:38 AM ET 2007-07-25T13:43:38

Brazil descended again into air chaos Wednesday after the nation's No. 1 airline canceled dozens of flights to and from the country's busiest airport, causing a ripple effect nationwide that stranded thousands and sent tempers flaring.

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The cancellations by TAM Linhas Aereas SA came after the government announced late Tuesday it was temporarily halting ticket purchases for flights at Sao Paulo's Conghonas airport, where a TAM jet crashed last week, killing 199 people.

Brazilian media reported that Defense Minister Waldir Pires would be replaced Wednesday, after receiving widespread criticism for nearly a year of periodic air travel havoc that intensified after the TAM crash. The air force oversees Brazil's air traffic control system.

There were severe delays and waves of cancellations across Brazil Wednesday, a day after 590 flights were delayed and 298 canceled, according to Infraero, the country's airport infrastructure authority.

The chaos was aggravated when Brazil's leading airline, TAM, canceled or diverted 90 flights at Congonhas on Tuesday, citing safety concerns over heavy rain and the airport's runway.

The rain continued on Wednesday, leading the airline to initially cancel 36 flights from Congonhas and divert another 25 domestic flights to Sao Paulo's international airport. TAM said in a statement.

Many passengers said they would wait out delays lasting days, but others gave up.

"This is a joke," said Jose Tereza, a 52-year-old doctor whose flight was canceled because of rain Monday. He spent 16 hours in the airport, only to see it canceled again Tuesday. "Now I'm going to have to take a six-hour bus ride, but I'm hearing the buses are packed because of this."

Relatives and friends of the victims gathered at Congonhas Tuesday evening for a religious ceremony to honor the dead at the precise moment that the plane raced off the runway and slammed into a gas station and an air cargo building.

"She died doing what she liked most," Jose Roberto Silva, said of his daughter Madalena, a TAM flight attendant.

Churches in the southern cities of Porto Alegre and Curitiba — the hometowns of many of the dead — also held memorial Masses.

Brazil's Aviation Authority announced the temporary suspension of all ticket sales for flights to Congonhas in an effort to reduce the number of delays and cancellations.

The measure was adopted "to ensure that those who have already purchased their tickets will be able to embark," the authority's president, Milton Zuanazzi, said at a news conference. "Sales will only resume once the situation at Congonhas returns to normal."

The delays also prompted TAM's main Brazilian competitor, Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA, to recommend that its clients postpone flying until Monday. "In this period, the company hopes to re-establish the normal flux of air traffic," the company said.

Officials have closed the 1,939-meter (6,362-foot) main runway at Congonhas, short by modern standards amid claims it is dangerous when wet. Investigators probing the July 17 crash need to "complete their inspection (of the runway) to see if it played any role in the disaster," Infraero spokeswoman Ana Carla Mafra said.

Brig. Gen. Jorge Kersul, who heads the air force's air accident investigation center, said earlier the runway was one of the factors being looked into.

But another Infraero spokesman, Leonardo Mota Neto, insisted it was safe, saying, "There is no way the runway can be blamed for the accident."

TAM's shares have dropped 16 percent since the crash, but the company's chief financial officer, Libano Barroso, downplayed the financial impact of the accident and the subsequent air chaos during a conference call with investors.

Barroso said that the measure of airplane occupancy, or load factor, of the company's domestic and international flights stood at 75 percent.

Landing at Congonhas, TAM Flight 3054 sped down the runway instead of slowing down, then jumped a highway and hit a gas station and an air cargo building, killing 187 people aboard and 12 on the ground.

The airline said one of the Airbus 320's two thrust reversers was deactivated, although it said that was allowed under government safety regulations.

Kersul said that the plane landed normally but was unable to slow down and crashed at 175 kilometers (109 miles) per hour.

Many critics blamed President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's administration for failing to invest enough in airports over the past five years while the number of flights and passengers has increased dramatically. Investigators say the runway is being probed as a possible crash factor, but government officials have repeatedly denied it played a role in the crash.

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